La Biennale di Venezia – the 56th International Art Exhibition

Among the many highlights from the preview last week of All the World’s Futures, the world’s most prestigious contemporary art biennale in Venice, were giant phallic sculptures from British artist Sarah Lucas, new paintings from Scottish-Canadian-Trinidadian artist Peter Doig, a Polish opera staged in Haiti and a collection of rock and roll memorabilia from The Clash’s Mick Jones.


British Pavilion Sarah Lucas


Peter Doig Horseman

Nigerian-born Okwul Enwezor is the first ever African curator of the 120-year-old Venice art Biennale, often referred to as the Olympics of the art world. 89 countries showcase their artists in two main sites, the Giardini and the Arsenale and in palaces, squares and churches throughout Venice.  44 official collateral events and countless other unofficial events are dotted around the city.  After three days of previews attended by artists, curators, critics and gallerists from all over the world, the exhibition opened to the public on Saturday 9 May and runs until 22 November 2015.

Country Pavilions in The Giardini

Trying to see all 29 country pavilions and the central pavilion with its massive group show in the gardens is no easy task. A few must-see exhibitions are in the American, Austrian, Belgian, British, Canadian, French, Japanese and Polish pavilions.

The playful Canada pavilion, completely transformed by Montreal artist trio BGL Canadissimo, is an inventive take on the corner shop or ‘depanneur’ as it’s known in Quebec. The first floor features a shop with retro grocery items and a mad artist’s studio filled with hundreds of multi-coloured paint splattered paint cans, while upstairs the visitor is invited to watch their coin travel down a giant pinball machine.


Canadian Pavilion -BGL

Next door, in the British Pavilion, Sarah Lucas also uses humour for her solo show I Scream Daddio. Lucas has created new sculptural works using the serious themes that she is known for – gender, sex, and death –  presented with her typical bawdy humour.

British Pavilion in the Giardini. Sarah Lucas, I Scream Daddio.

British Pavilion in the Giardini. Sarah Lucas, I Scream Daddio

The Key in the Hand by Chiharu Shiota of Japan, a striking installation all in red about memories, features 180,000 keys from all over the world suspended by red yarn over and around two wooden boats.


Japan Pavilion- Chiharu Shiota

The Belgium pavilion’s Vincent Meessen uses a group of international artists in a clever show that investigates colonialism in the Congo. Particularly outstanding is an industrial machine sorting modernist blocks in a futile task.


Belgium Pavilion – Vincent Meessen

Poland’s artists Joanna Malinowska and C.T. Jasper examine some of the same issues that Belgium does but not from a colonial point of view, rather from an obscure historical quirk of fate. During the Napoleonic wars, a Polish legion was sent to Haiti and their descendants settled there.  The artists (in homage to Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo) present a film of an opera staged in the same area. Ironically, the opera they perform is Halka by Stanislaw Moniuszko, an unofficial national opera and a comment on cultural imperialism.


Polish Pavilion – Joanna Malinowska and C.T Jasper

Joan Jonas’s They Come to Us Without a Word in the American pavilion combines old films blended with new videos portraying the spiritual aspects and fragility of nature.


USA Pavilion – Joan Jonas

The central pavilion in the Giardini features a group show of 136 artists delving into what curator Okwul Enwezor refers to as ‘ contemporary global reality.’ A surprising hit during the previews was John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea, a mesmerizing film about whaling. Other highlights from the central pavilion include work by Christian Boltanski, Hans Haacke, Ellen Gallagher, Jeremy Deller and Isaac Julien’s orchestration of live readings from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

Providing a calming break from so much visual stimulation, the Austrian artist Heimo Zobernig cleverly uses the pavilion space to comment on architecture and its human effects while Celeste Boursier-Mougenot invites visitors to the French pavilion to relax on foam sofas while watching a giant tree in the centre slowly move to hypnotic music.

The Arsenale

The former ship-building yard that is now the Arsenale features other artists invited by the curator Okwul Enwezor and more country pavilions.  Four large, colourful paintings by British artist Chris Ofili make for essential viewing, as do Ashes and Cemetery, tragic films about a the murder of a young Grenadian fisherman, projected back to back by Academy Award and Turner prize winner Steve McQueen.  Also fantastic is Oscar Murillo’s project Frequencies where the artist invited school children from 40 countries to express their thoughts and feelings on canvases stitched to desks over a 6 month period.


Arsenale – Chris Offili

National pavilions outside of the main two biennale sites:

It would be difficult to miss the Ukraine pavilion which perhaps aptly is now outside of the Giardini but still within reach of the Russian pavilion. The Ukraine exhibition is called Hope and is housed in a transparent box beside the Grand Canal.  While there are ominous elements (there’s a replica of a large cage for courtroom defendants), the central piece is optimistic as it shows a live feed from 9 cameras on the front of soldiers’ homes. As each soldier returns safely home, the camera is turned off. There was already one turned off during the preview.


Ukraine Pavilion

Unsurprisingly, exposure and prestige motivate many individual artists to fund their own exhibitions at the biennale but some countries do this as well.  Mauritius’s first national pavilion at the biennale is a case in point as it was largely self-funded and crowd-funded by the artists involved.  An excellent first effort from this island country, From One Citizen You Gather an Idea reflects the fusion of cultures, languages and ethnicities.

As the title suggests, Montenegro-born, Brooklyn-based artist Aleksander Duravcevic’s site-specific installation You Remember deals with identity and memories of the changing political landscape in what was Yugoslavia.

Graham Fagen, the artist representing Scotland, has taken over Palazzo Fontana, a private family home which has never been used for the biennale before and is the birthplace of a 16th-century pope.  Beautiful Murano glass chandeliers feature in a room where a Robert Burns’ poem The Slave’s Lament is read by the reggae singer Ghetto Priest, accompanied by musicians from the Scottish Ensemble, in an arresting four-screen video installation.


Scotland Pavilion

Helen Sears, the first female artist to represent Wales, shows new photographic and video work in …the rest is smoke in Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, a church and former convent.

Collateral events:

When Tate director Nick Serota remarked on the cinematic quality of the Peter Doig’s new paintings at the Palazzetto Tito, the artist’s response was ‘I like painting because it’s just me doing it. I have pictures to make but I don’t have a film to make.’ However, Doig does enjoy collaboration and is currently working on a book with the Nobel-prize winning poet Derek Walcott. Walcott has written 50 poems, some of which refer to Doig’s earlier paintings and Doig is making new paintings in response to some of the others.

At Palazzo Falier in his exhibition Land Sea, Irish artist Sean Scully uses paint generously with luscious, thick, messy stripes plastered across the canvases in a seductive and masterly fashion.

Sean Scully


Isaac Julien’s Stones Against Diamonds, commissioned by Rolls Royce, in the Palazzo Malipiero-Barnabo, is a new installation that was filmed in remote glacial caves in Iceland. The film is based on a letter written by Italian-born Brazilian designer Lina Bo Bardi exploring her love of semi-precious stones.  Following its public exhibition at the Basel art fair, the work will be donated by the artist to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London.


Isaac Julien


Isaac Julien

Frontiers Reimagined, a group show at the Palazzo Grimani, features 44 emerging and established artists from 25 countries including Vik Muniz, Sebastio Salgado, Edward Burtynsky, Christo, Eddi Prabandon and Michael Petry.


Frontiers Reimagined -Eddi Prabandon

While Proportio, at Museo Fortuny, is about proportion and geometry, it is far from dry. This massive group show spread out over several floors of a large Gothic palazzo, features new work from Marina Abramovic, Anish Kapor and Massimo Bartolini, alongside existing pieces from the collection by Sol Lewitt, Carl Andre, Agnes Martin and Sandro Botticelli.

My East is Your West unites India and Pakistan for the first time at Venice, presenting artists Shilpa Gupta from India and Rashid Rana from Pakistan, in the Palazzo Benzon on the Grand Canal.

And for something completely different but equally stimulating, The Rock & Roll Public Library curated by the Mick Jones of the Clash, James Putnam and Alteria Art, in the courtyard of the Institute of Santa Maria della Pieta, features a vast array of the legendary musician’s archive plus a 70s listening booth where visitors can choose records from the period.


Rock & Roll Library

Words: Joanne Shurvell
Photos: Paul Allen

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